August 29, 2014

Birds on the ground, not in the hand

bird943-killdeer

bird943-killdeerThe markings on the eggs and feathers of the Killdeer help camouflage both on the ground. Marie Stalling of Fairfield discovered this nest.Beware of birds on the ground that may not fly away.

In the spring and early summer, we’re apt to come across “grounded” birds that are either nesting or have fallen from off-the-ground nests. Except in rare circumstances, they should be left alone.

Ground-nesting birds are most often seen near water, but one exception is the Killdeer. A member of the shore-loving Plover family, the Killdeer often nests in fields and open ground far from waterways. We had one nest in a small grass island of a shopping center parking lot in Ridgefield, and they often build nests on the flat roofs of both office buildings and shopping centers, particularly ones covered with stone pebbles.

Marie Stalling of Fairfield discovered a nesting Killdeer in her hometown of Fairfield recently. “While coming onto the field for a soccer game, we came across a very angry bird,” Marie writes. “She was screaming at us and understandably so: She had four speckled eggs in her nest.

“Never having seen such a bird nor one who nested openly in the driveway of a field among the rocks, I took a few photos and gave her her space as well as policed the small children to keep them away from her. I also placed several large rocks at a distance around the perimeter of her nest in hopes that anyone driving onto the driveway would steer clear.

“A week or so later when we returned to the same field (our home turf), I checked on mama bird and sure enough, after days and nights of pouring rain, she was still there and just as protective as ever. I was very happy she and her eggs had survived!”

Nesting on the surface of the earth provides some advantages. Probably the greatest is ease of construction. The nest requires no elaborate supports.

However, since the ground is obviously not the safest place to build a nest, the Killdeer has developed some methods of helping assure survival of its young. The eggs are speckled black and white, blending in well with surroundings as Marie’s photo demonstrates. The Killdeer itself is dull brown, black and white, also an effective camouflage.

When they hatch, Killdeer chicks are “precocial,” having at least some feathers, open eyes, and the ability to move around on their own and feed themselves. This may make them not quite as susceptible to predators as “altricial young,” who rely on their parents to raise them — particularly for feeding, sheltering and protecting them.

The Killdeer’s most famous protective device is its acting ability. If it detects a threat from a potential predator, the parent Killdeer will pretend it’s injured, dragging a wing or limping as it scrambles along the ground to lure attacker away. Once far enough from the nest, the Killdeer “recovers” and flies off, presumably having distracted the intruder enough not to return to the nesting area.

Bill Rossiter of Redding reminds hikers not to pick up baby birds, “unless they’re on a road or in clear danger.” He spotted this baby Tufted Titmouse on a Redding trail.Bill Rossiter of Redding reminds hikers not to pick up baby birds, “unless they’re on a road or in clear danger.” He spotted this baby Tufted Titmouse on a Redding trail.

Baby birds

The other “ground bird” we’re apt to find is a nestling or fledgling, typically one of those altricial species.

Bill Rossiter of Redding sent along the picture of a baby titmouse “to reinforce the annual appeal not to pick up baby birds, unless they’re on a road or in clear danger.”

Whether they have fallen from nests or are in the process of learning to fly, most young birds spotted on the ground are being tended to by adults nearby.

Bill adds, “people walking on trails should monitor their dogs, as a dog would have found this titmouse easy prey, sitting quietly on a path in Redding’s Rock Lot open space.”

Bluebird of happiness

Ellen Grunsell of Ridgefield sent along a note: “I saw my first Bluebird in 20 years here on one of the ponds on Limestone Road. It was a male — the blue was brilliant. He perched on a flower stand just four feet from my living-room window — it was a perfect view. Do you think he was just passing through, or is there a chance there is a female and nest in the area?”

Since the sighting was in late spring, odds are the bluebird was nesting nearby

Coming up

New Jersey Meadowlands, including a pontoon boat tour, Tuesday, July 24, 9:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. $15 cash for the boat tour, Bedford Audubon, depart Bylane Farm, 35 Todd Rd., Katonah at 8:30; register at jpollock@bedfordaudubon.org, 914-519-7801, bedfordaudubon.org

Copyright 2012 by Jack Sanders. Send sightings or comments to: jackfsanders [at sign] gmail.com, or to Bird Notes, Box 1019, Ridgefield, CT 06877. If you need help identifying a bird, try your local nature center. If you find an injured bird, call wildlife rehabilitator Darlene Wimbrow of Redding, 203-438-0618, Wildlife in Crisis of Weston, 203-544-9913, or Wild Wings of Greenwich, 203-637-9822. The columnist’s website is www. sandersbooks. com.